Like every morning, pediatrician and neonatologist Nihal Thabet went to work at General Obour Hospital. Exiting the doctors’ room, she yanked a paper off the wall calendar and realized it was the 10th of May – which marked the anniversary of two dates known to every doctor in Egypt.

First strike: ‘One Voice’

Like every morning, pediatrician and neonatologist Nihal Thabet went to work at General Obour Hospital. Exiting the doctors’ room, she yanked a paper off the wall calendar and realized it was the 10th of May – which marked the anniversary of two dates known to every doctor in Egypt.

First strike: ‘One Voice’

Thabet remembered the massive general assembly rally held in Cairo’s International Conference Center on that day in 2011, attended by over 5,000 doctors –  an unprecedented number in the history of the syndicate’s general assemblies. There were clear and specific demands agreed upon by the crowd of doctors from all over Egypt. 

However, their agreement was marred by the objection of the head of the doctors’ syndicate at the time Hamdi Sayed, who opposed to doctors staging a peaceful strike. Sayed left the general assembly and it was later suspended. Nevertheless, the revolutionary doctors were determined to develop and improve the health system, including raising the health budget to 15% of the entire state budget.

Consecutive strikes and unfulfilled demands

After signing over 100 children’s patient examination reports within two hours, Nihal remembered: “The first strike was symbolic and lasted for two days between May 10 and 17, 2011. It was followed by another in September and October of the same year lasting for nearly two months. The strike had to be ended since the participants felt it was futile and the community started to grumble about the striking doctors.”

The third strike was staged in October 2012 during which time the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the syndicate’s council. This strike was the longest and lasted for 82 days amid strong opposition by the head of the syndicate’s council Khairi Abdel Dayem, who still holds this post, and the general secretary Essam Erian who is currently in detention. Their opposition came to the point of trying to prevent the doctors, who were unaffiliated with the Islamic mainstream, from attending the general assembly meeting to approve the decision to stop the strike by majority votes.

The Brotherhood doctors notoriously performed a prayer while standing on their seats to prevent others from occupying them, which led to fist fights among doctors affiliated to different political streams. The spirit of the doctor’s revolution began to fade while the voice of politics and union elections interests between the Brotherhood on the one hand and the ‘Independence Movement’ and ‘Doctors without Rights’ on the other became more prominent.

“This situation led to the emergence of the so-called ‘Ultras White Coats’ which is a non-ideological and non-syndicate affiliated movement that supported the doctors’ goals when the syndicate failed to perform,” remembered Thabet.

Fourth and final strike

The 10th of May 2014, according to Thabet marked another procrastination date as the higher committee of strikes decided to halt the successful strike which had started on March 8 under the pretext of waiting for the next Legislative Council, which has still not been held.

 Accordingly, an integrated plan was approved for medical staff cadres in addition to a package of other bogus benefits including the health ministry’s coverage of tuition fees of doctors’ post-graduate studies. Consequently, universities raised the expenses of these studies – and allocating hospitals to provide free treatment services for doctors – which did not happen – in addition to raising the salary of the newly appointed doctor to $400 – while in fact it still has not exceeded $150, which is less than the basic salary of a policeman without allowances.

Pilots’ crisis and doctors’ opinion

Early last month, the government and the presidency quickly attempted to contain the problem of the mass resignations of 243 EgyptAir pilots who demanded bringing their salaries on par with the international salaries of pilots. The striking pilots’ demand was to raise their salary from $11,000 to $18,000 (which exceeds the total monthly salary of 100 doctors or more) in addition to raising the monthly salary of co-pilots from $7,000 to $11,000.

State’s lame capitalism

Ahmed Massad Anwar, anesthesiologist at Ahmed Maher Teaching Hospital believes that doctors would not care about other employees’ incomes if the government would pay them sufficient salaries.

“The problem is that state policies pursue a purely capitalist approach which is being applied inequitably. Its main concern is how much revenues it generates with very little care given to other concerns. Health in Egypt needs more than medical cadres while these cadres are considered an important step on the road of reforming the entire health system,” he said.

Massad believed that the real benefit of the pilots’ crisis is that they formed pressure on the government by agreeing on a unified strategy. The problem can be summed up in a few simple points.

The doctors, however, do not agree on one opinion against a government that lacks a clear plan and responds only to disastrous pressure. “It pays no attention to the citizens’ fundamental rights or the basic rights of social service providers. Citizens are submissive and unaware of the fact that doctors’ demands will ultimately reflect positively on their well-deserved health welfare. These are the main reasons behind the faltering medical career struggle to get the least possible gains of legitimate demands,” argued Massad.

Humiliation continues at home and abroad

Nihal said the situation of doctors in Egypt is totally inhuman. In most public hospitals, she argues, a pediatrician like her is bound to sign a register, prescribe medicine and provide necessary health advice to each of the examined children’s parents. Doctors also have to deal with the ensuing quarrels amongst queuing patients and explaining the shortage of some medicines. Doctors, she says, are sometimes exposed to assault and humiliation which raises one of the most important demands of providing security in public hospitals.

She added that even when a doctor decides to travel abroad, he will be paid less than his peers as his employer knows that he is paid much higher than he would be at home. In other words, the doctor is humiliated in both cases.